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May 07, 2019

The Grand Duel

grand duel.jpg

Il Grande Duello / The Big Showdown
Giancarlo Santi - 1972
Arrow Video BD Region A

The booklet that accompanies Arrow's new blu-ray of The Grand Duel includes excerpts of reviews from the Italian press at the time of the film's initial release. What was essentially written off as a derivative imitation of Sergio Leone was included as part of a retrospective of Italian westerns at the Venice Film Festival in 2007. The influence of Leone is hard to miss, especially the series of close-ups of the eyes of Lee Van Cleef and his adversaries in the final shootout. And if the main narrative is not original, that's true of many many films, perhaps more so in genre films such as westerns and horror films, but also someone like the contemporary Hong Sangsoo, whose films frequently follow a similar template.

The Grand Duel was produced at the time when the commercial viability of the Italian western had plateaued. That the film was modestly profitable was primarily due to international pre-sales on the strength of Van Cleef's name. Santi's film did not get a stateside release until 1974. The visual influence of Leone was not simple imitation as Santi had previously worked as an assistant director to the master on The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time . . . in the West. Leone thought enough of Santi to originally appoint him as director of Duck, You Sucker! until Rod Steiger insisted on only making the film with Leone as director. The screenplay is by the prolific Ernest Gastaldi, who also wrote the Leone produced comic western, My Name is Nobody, one of the last commercially successful films of the genre.

The main narrative threads are familiar. Sons avenging the deaths of their respective fathers, an innocent man on the run following being framed for murder, a town held in the grips of corrupt businessmen, and a lawman working outside the law. As is pointed out by film historian Stephen Prince in his commentary track, that the story hinges on the memory of a murder connects Santi's film also to Leone's, but also to John Ford's The Man who Shot Liberty Valance in that the viewer sees two different versions of the same incident. I would also add to that a connection to the gialli written by Gastaldi, where there are false or imagined memories. It is not made clear by any of the supplements as to who decided that the flashback sequences should be in black and white, but the fog created by the steam of a waiting train, and the unknown killer seen as an inky black silhouette, both visually seem closer to a horror movie than a western.

There is one remarkable moment when the escaped convict, Vermeer, is suppose to be ambushed by bounty hunters. Van Cleef's character of Clayton takes a stroll around the one-horse town, leaving casual visual hints for Vermeer revealing where the bounty hunters are hidden. This is followed by a series of gunshots and acrobatic leaps on the part of Vermeer, precisely timed and edited by Roberto Perpignani. It's only a handful of shots that lasts a few seconds of screen time. Perpignani's reputation at the time mainly rested on his work with Bernardo Bertolucci, but his work on The Grand Duel should be studied for how to logically edit action sequences.

Stephen Prince is a still active professor at Virginia Tech and his commentary track reflects that, not only discussing the making of The Grand Duel, and that film's relationship to Italian westerns and westerns in general, but also going into film theory, primarily with the visual elements of lighting and framing. I was reminded of my days as a formal Cinema Studies student in a good way. There may be an intellectual heft that usually is absent from most commentary tracks, but I'll take this over the improvised slop that accompanies some home video releases.

The other supplements include an interview with Giancarlo Santi, interviews with Alberto Dentice - the former actor who played Vermeer credited as Peter O'Brien, one of the producers, an uncredited production assistant, a short film with supporting actor Marc Mazza, and a tribute as well to Mazza. Also, Austin Fisher, who has written extensively on Italian westerns, offers his thoughts on The Grand Duel. And if that wasn't enough, there is also a comparison of scenes that are slightly different in the German version of the film. The film, as usual for its time, was completely dubbed after production, but that is definitely Lee Van Cleef in the English language version. I do recommend seeing the Italian version at least for the visually interesting titles that float horizontally from right to left across the screen.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at May 7, 2019 08:32 AM